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Neil Ferber


Convicted of a double homicide in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1981, Neil Ferber was exonerated after spending four years in prison. Upon retirement, Philadelphia District Attorney Edward G. Rendell admitted to withholding exculpatory evidence from Ferber’s trial and requested that a county judge retry his case. Ferber was acquitted, released and awarded $1.9 million in a civil suit against the City of Philadelphia for his wrongful conviction.
 
On the evening of May 27, 1981, two masked gunmen entered the South Philadelphia Meletis Restaurant. They opened fire, killing Chelsais “Steve” Bouras, 50, and his female companion Jeanette Curro, 54, who were seated at a table with seven other people. Bouras was a known leader of the local Greek mob, who ran a multimillion-dollar methamphetamine distribution ring. Also at the table sat Raymond “Long John” Martorano, a member of a competing mob run by boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo.
 
Outside of the restaurant, husband and wife John and Linda Egan were parking their car when the two masked men came running from the building. The two men paused briefly directly in front of the Egans’ car. One of the two men removed his mask, exposing his profile, before continuing his flight down the street.
 
When the police arrived, witnesses at the restaurant were able to provide only limited descriptions of the two men. They stated that the men were of stocky build, probably between 185 and 200 pounds, and one was about 5’9”. The Egans were better equipped to describe the one man who had removed his mask. They described him as a white male in his early thirties, about 5’6” in height, weighing between 140 and 145 pounds. Both remarked on the particular shape and length of his nose.
 
Homicide Detective Sergeant Daniel Ronstein and Officer Michael Chitwood took control of the Bouras-Curro investigation. From the onset, Ronstein based his investigation on an uncorroborated tip received from jailhouse snitch, Gerald “Jerry” Jordan, who implicated 36-year-old furniture salesman Neil Ferber in the killings. Jordan had spent most of his adult life in prison, and claimed he and Ferber had previously been cellmates in the Philadelphia Detention Center. Ferber had frequently spent time in prison for petty crimes and maintained friendly ties with several members of the Greek mob. Jordan, after making a deal with Ronstein to shorten his own pending criminal charges, reported that Ferber had confessed to the murders to him. Jordan took a polygraph test, but failed it. This fact was withheld from both the defense and the district attorney. Although the court demanded it, Ronstein refused to reveal Jordan’s identity, claiming that someone had stolen all documentation of this information from his office and that he could no longer recall the informant’s name.
 
Ronstein and police sketch artist Dominic Frontino manipulated the Egans by tampering with identification evidence in order to corroborate the charges made against Ferber. Ronstein and Frontino conspired to frame Ferber by using a police mug shot of him to develop the sketch of the man the Egans described from their encounter in the parking lot.
 
When Linda Egan was finally shown the actual mug shot of Ferber, she claimed that the photo “as far as she could tell…looked most like the man she had seen on the night of the shooting.” These words were used at trial as a “positive identification.”
 
In Ferber’s 1982 trial, the district attorney used the information collected by Ronstein, Frontino and Chitwood during their investigation in the case against Ferber. Ferber was convicted on May 3, 1982, and sentenced to death in the electric chair.
 
After his conviction, Ferber and his wife, Annette, hired defense attorney Dennis J. Corgan to handle his case. Corgan had a break in this case when he received a phone call from Lt. Francis P. Friel of the Organized Crime Task Force in Philadelphia. Friel’s mob informants had told him that the wrong man was arrested in the Bouras-Curro case. Friel began seeking evidence. He uncovered the failed polygraph test previously given to Jordan. With this information, Corgan requested that Rendell administer a new test. The test was ordered and Jordan failed again.
 
On his last day as district attorney, Rendell asked Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Latrone to grant Ferber a new trial. He admitted that he had withheld exculpatory evidence that key witness Jordan had failed his polygraph test. Judge Latrone immediately overturned Ferber’s conviction, leaving it up to the new district attorney, Mark Gottlieb, to decide whether or not Ferber should be retried. Ferber was released from prison the following day, but Gottlieb did not officially drop all charges against Ferber until March 7, 1986.
 
Later in 1986, Ferber and his wife filed a civil suit against the City of Philadelphia claiming that Ferber’s wrongful conviction had caused him to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, bleeding ulcers, and a nervous breakdown. He and his wife brought action against Philadelphia and five police officers for misconduct, conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On September 28, 1993, at the end of his first hearing, the jury awarded Ferber a total of $4.5 million: $2.5 million in punitive damages and $2 million in compensatory damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed this decision on October 3, 1994, due to changes in the state’s liability laws. The court ruled that the city as a whole could not be held accountable for the criminal conduct of individual police officers, and that Ronstein and Frontino should be tried for liability and damages in Ferber’s case. In 1995, however, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court reversed even the necessity for their liability hearing. After filing an appeal in 1996, the City of Philadelphia finally agreed to award Ferber the amount of $1.9 million to conclude this case, which, embarrassingly for the state, had continued for 14 years.
 
No one was ever charged for the Bouras-Curro murder, but police theorize that the killing was ordered by mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and set up by Raymond Martorano, who had been present at the scene of the crime in 1981.
 
- Elizabeth Balcom
State:PA
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1981
Convicted:1982
Exonerated:1986
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:34
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct